William Shakespeare's 450th birthday: Why I've tweeted a line of the Bard every 10 minutes for five years

If brevity is the soul of wit then Twitter is the perfect medium for the Bard's works. Joshua Strebel wishes William Shakespeare many happy RTs on his 450th birthday

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The Independent Culture

To tweet or not to tweet? For most that's not even a question, it's an integral part of their online social habits.

I joined Twitter way back in the social media stone age of 2007 when the service was very new. At first, it felt like a large yet intimate living room filled with friendly banter between real-life friends. What sort of interesting things can you say in 140 characters? As Twitter exploded in popularity, it seemed that the answer was very little. It quickly lost its shine as my stream was filled with the banal updates from those eating, jogging, and, regrettably, even pooing. By 2009, Twitter was a status update battle royal of craven attention seekers vs hipsters vs "social media experts".

Willy Shakes (@iam_shakespeare) was my answer to the banality of the everyday tweet. I decided to tweet a line of Shakespeare, in order, every 10 minutes. It came from a place of sarcastic humour and my appreciation for Shakespeare. I felt he would have approved - after all, he did claim that brevity was the soul of wit.

The software is very simple, adapted from something I created for a basketball fan site that compiled game-time tweets. The bot uses the Project Gutenberg version of Shakespeare and, in August 2009, the first Shakespeare tweet went live: "From fairest creatures we desire increase, That thereby beauty's rose might never die" (from Sonnet 1) and some 229k tweets later, the bot embarked on the 3rd cycle of the Bard's complete works. Starting with the sonnets, on to Macbeth, Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew, the bot methodically tweets it all, line by line. Each cycle takes a little more than two years to complete.

Whereas I initially saw tweeting Willy as a humorous response to Twitter's ability to give all the world a stage, Dr Leonardo Flores, associate professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico, describes @iam_shakespeare as digital performance art.

"Part of what is so brilliant about the project is that it weaves a little bit of the Bard's lines into the Twitter stream of its followers, placing it in circulation with everything else that is going on in that environment, making it shareable, remixable, readable," he says.

"These lines from Shakespeare are more than just a scheduled performance in social media: they become computational objects the moment they are tweeted. Each tweet has a unique identity within the network, time stamped and shareable via retweet, quote, or link. One can even follow the link into Twitter and see the replies which may have entire comment threads."

Following @iam_shakespeare and seeing the Bard's verse intermingle with your Twitter stream yields surprising results. Like the follower who retweeted the line "I'll set thee in a shower of gold, and hail" with a hilarious reference to R Kelly. I have taken enjoyment over the past few years watching Willy's followers grow and have had thoughts of taking it further; creating accounts for each character in Romeo and Juliet, and tweeting dialogue from the cast in order. In fact, I've since discoverecd that the RSC did just that in 2010, with a project called Such Tweet Sorrow.

The 46,000 people who follow Willy seem to genuinely appreciate his digital afterlife, and I believe that having him as part of our internet experience can only be a good thing at a time when tweets are such stuff as dreams are made on.